Hearts Out of Play #1
Since We Were Gone
by Zøe Haslie
Fiercely protective brothers? √
Iron-willed Dad? √
Disturbing romantic feelings for her best friend? √
Sixteen-year-old Regan Clark only longs for the summer camp trip her dad takes her and her three brothers on each year. But everything changes when the unimaginable happens—her best friend, and acquired fourth brother, Harper, turns into a big cheat and she gets cast aside.
So when school starts again, Regan finds herself friendless, struggling with soccer practice and on the verge of failing math. On top of that, Harper’s own issues lead him to move in with the Clarks, which makes it next to impossible to hide all the bad blood between them.
But meeting Sophie turns into a mindblower, for Regan’s introduced to the strange world of girls she’s been missing out until now. And, much to her dismay, she soon finds out what hurts the most about losing her best friend—to be secretly in love with him.
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Summer camp is a huge event in our family. My brothers and I spend the whole year anticipating, looking forward to it, and making plans. We inevitably forget those plans as soon as we get there, but they are indispensable all the same, for they keep the summer spirit alive during the rest of the year. Similarly anticipating a break from his credit analyst bank job, Dad begins looking at campers to rent before the school year ends. A car isn’t big enough—not when you take five kids and an adult, plus all their belongings, camping for a week. During the last days of class, while we’re having dinner, he shows us pictures of the vehicles he has in mind and we all vote for them until we find ‘the one.’ If Mom is home and not away working, she cheerfully joins in the conversations. However, she rarely ever makes it to camp.
Finally, the school year is over, and the fun actually begins. On the first Saturday of June, Dad wakes us all up at 6:00 a.m. to have breakfast and throw all our camping equipment into the camper. At long last, we are on our way.
We arrive at the camping site after a three-hour drive and start unpacking the vehicle. My older twin brothers, Landon and Eric, both becoming seniors, share a tent with our friend, Harper, who is sixteen just like me, and joins us every summer. I sleep with my seven-year-old brother, Jamie, in another tent, and Dad has his own space. In the end, the sleeping arrangements are insignificant, since most nights we drag our sleeping bags next to the bonfire and fall asleep out in the open, while talking in whispers and staring at the starry night.
During the days that we spend away from the city, we enjoy nature in every way we can—playing beach-volleyball and soccer, hiking, making temporary friendships, swimming in the lake, climbing trees, biking, barbecuing, and making bonfires.
Three hundred and fifty-eight days waiting. Longing. Planning...for this summer to turn into the biggest fiasco.
It all starts the Friday before departing, when Harper comes to spend the night at our house so that we can leave early in the morning. While my brothers and I joke throughout dinner, Harper mostly keeps to himself, only offering the polite smile every now and then—a mirthless smile that fails to reach his eluding eyes and keeps giving way to a persistent frown.
This aloof attitude continues during the whole ride and the first two days. Nothing seems to get through to him—not even the prank of adding a skirt to the sign for the men’s toilets, after which we spend an entire hour hiding on top of a tree, suppressing our giggles while listening to women gasp and yell. He laughed, but his chuckle was a humorless sound.
The third day at the campsite, we meet three boys around our age while fooling around in the lake with the beach ball. We spend the whole afternoon playing in the water, talking and laughing.
“Hey, why don’t you come over after dark?” the tallest asks, rubbing a towel through his hair.
“Yeah, we can roast some marshmallows,” the blonde one, who has a bronze tan says, staring at me through shiny gray eyes.
It could be my imagination, but I think I hear Harper gag behind me.
“And I could tell you stories that would make your blood freeze on your veins,” the other one goes, wiggling his eyebrows challengingly.
His friends burst out laughing.
“Oh, please, your stories wouldn’t scare a nun, Mike.”
Mike frowns. “Sure they would.”
“Well, they’d doubtlessly affect the sensibilities of our delicate Regan here,” my brother Eric goes, throwing an arm around my shoulder.
With a quick reflex motion, I shake him off. “Your concern is moving, Eric,” I say, glaring at him. “Unfounded and misplaced, too. Are you sure you’re not projecting?”
Eric raises his hands in the air in defeat. “Just looking out for my little sis, that’s all.”
“Seems to me she can take care of herself just fine,” the blonde one goes, winking at me.
Is he flirting with me? Being completely unexperienced in that department, I couldn’t really tell. Not sure what to do, I offer him a thank you smile and turn my attention to my flipflops.
“It’s settled then,” the tallest says.
“We’ll see you after dinner.”
“Oh, we’ll be there,” Harper says grimly.
The boys nod and turn to leave. We start the way back to our tents.
“I think we should skip the whole marshmallows drivel,” Harper states.
“I think Regan has an admirer,” Landon says.
“No, I don’t,” I grit out, pushing a long branch out of the way.
“Sure you do, a modern, sun-tanned, brawny knight in shining armor, not that you need one.”
“What’s his name?” Eric asks.
Landon shrugs. “Beats me.”
“Regan and what’s-his-name sitting on a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” Eric chants annoyingly out of rhythm and tune.
“Shut up, Eric!” Harper and I say in unison. Our looks cross for half a second, but before I can glimpse into him and see through the wall that now shields his every emotion, he looks away.
“Whoa, somebody’s a bit irked,” Landon points out.
“Yeah, I wonder why that is,” Eric says, rubbing his chin.
“Maybe it’s because you two should be minding your own businesses,” I say.
With a hand motion, Eric dismisses my comment. “So, Harper, do tell us why we should sit this one out.”
Landon rubs his hands together with anticipation. “Oh, yes, I’m dying to know.”
I roll my eyes, unable to understand what’s gotten into my brothers. That is, other than the need of being perpetually irritating.
“Well, uh...” Harper clears his throat. “I mean, marshmallows and ghost stories? What are we, like 12?”
“As opposed to being hushed to sleep at nightfall by Dad...” Eric says with a noticeable hint of irony.
“You’re making a great case here, Jackson. Please go on,” Landon encourages him. There’s a definite glint in his eyes, though I haven’t got the slightest idea why he’s amused.
“They were conceited, full of themselves, wouldn’t stop talking about themselves and bragging about their lives... Plus, their jokes weren’t even that funny.” Harper’s words make no sense whatsoever. The boys were funny and friendly, and even Harper laughed at their jokes. The first real, hearty laugh he’s had in days. “I just don’t see the point wasting a single more...” Harper pauses abruptly to fix my brothers with an icy glare. “Will you stop laughing so that I can finish?”
“Did you—?” Eric gasps for air. “Did you get that?” He asks Landon.
Resting against a tree trunk for support, Landon holds his stomach with both hands. It takes him several moments to keep his laughter under control before he can utter a full sentence. “I know. That was rich.”
The tension emanating from Harper is palpable now. As we resume the walk, we reach a part where the path narrows, so we have to walk in line through the woods. Eric is leading the way, followed by Landon, then Harper, and finally me. While they continue to debate whether or not to go tonight, I zone out. For the millionth time, I wonder what has gotten into Harper. I consider asking, but a gaze at him tells me he’s also withdrawn. He’s somewhere I can’t reach him. I frown at this atypical behavior but decide to let it be and shrug as we finally approach my dad.
The sky is cloudy tonight, and Dad tells us during dinner that there is a high chance of rain before dawn, so we decide to make use of our tents. After dinner, everyone goes to bed. Jamie can’t sleep, so he asks me to tell him a story. My mind keeps coming back to Harper, so I grab my brother’s favorite book, switch on the lantern and start reading. He falls asleep to the sound of my voice twenty minutes later. The wind outside is starting to blow louder, causing the walls of our tent to convulse. The toads jump at the opportunity of coming out of their holes and are already chanting in preparation. The air with its low pressure and tangy aroma also warns me of the coming storm. I know it won’t be long before the rain starts, and I decide to go to the ladies’ room before that.
I slide the tent’s zipper carefully so that it would not wake Jamie, and step into the dark night. The only sounds filling the air are those of the toads, the night birds in the trees, and the pine tree branches creaking in the wind. The fire is long out. I reach out for the lantern lying beside the tent and make my way. When I’m almost half-way back, I hear laughter coming from the trees and spot a small fire through the leaves the wind continues to rock. It’s a few feet away from the path I’m following, so I switch the lantern off and let my feet lead the way through the woods. I hear dry branches crack behind my feet and feel others scratch my forearms and left cheek, but the voices grow louder with each step.
Suddenly, I find myself stepping into a clearing with six pairs of eyes fixed on me. I see Eric and Landon first, and they wink at me with mischievous expressions. Then, I focus on the three boys from before, who wave at me awkwardly. Lastly, I find Harper’s amber gaze. My breath feels trapped in my chest as I look at him filled with uncertainty and confusion. Swallowing the hard rock lump in my chest starts to become impossible. The silence permeating the air soon becomes unbearable. At least, for me. Harper, far from looking contrite, arches a questioning eyebrow and holds my stare in challenge, tilting his chin stubbornly.
That’s when it hits me. It isn’t the boys who are the problem. It’s me.
My heart sinks, and I feel my world fall away. To my horror, I feel tears welling up in my eyes, but I manage to blink them away. Swallowing the humiliation, I offer them a wobbly smile and bid them goodnight with a noticeably shaky voice. Then I turn on my heel and walk away, narrowly avoiding the embarrassment of breaking into tears in front of them. Only when I’m well out of sight do I start running all the way back to the tent.